Television

On Feel Good, Happily Ever After Might Be Never

Mae Martin’s Netflix series is a romantic comedy with complications.

Two women lean in to kiss in a dark bar
Mae Martin and Charlotte Ritchie in Feel Good. Netflix

Under normal circumstances, Feel Good is the kind of unmemorable title I would associate with some justly forgotten ’90s sitcom. At the moment, though, it’s an opportune command and a sprightly show to get behind. The six-episode series, which arrived on Netflix last week, is a romantic comedy about what it’s like to be passionately in love with someone with whom things maybe shouldn’t work out. What it lacks in rom-com purity it makes up for in substance. I found myself rooting for the couple to stay together and also get the hell apart. It’s a buoyant, bingeable comedy that’s worth arguing about. Trust me when I say: It feels good enough.

The title is also an instruction to the show’s protagonist, Mae, played by Mae Martin, who also wrote and produced the show. Martin plays a version of herself, a Canadian stand-up comic living in London who, with her pale face and shorn platinum hair, regularly compares herself to Bart Simpson and a kernel of corn, as well as Leo, JTT, and the whole 1990s teen boy Tiger Beat set. Mae self-deprecates with her own insecurities, turning them into jokes faster than anyone else can, but that doesn’t meant they aren’t insecurities.

In the opening moments of the series, Mae hits it off with George (Charlotte Ritchie), a generally straight woman who loves her set. Minutes after meeting, they’re making out at the comedy club. Hours later, with stereotypical lesbian celerity, they’re cohabitating. But Feel Good isn’t just moving through the stations of the rom-com cross, from meet-cute to happily ever after. That last step is not at all assured. Mae and George are in love, but they’re not perfect for each other. They both need someone just a little more confident in themselves than either of them can be.

Mae’s problems are alluded to from her and George’s first kiss: The lighting flickers ever so slightly, and there’s a high-pitched droning sound, like a horror effect went to a rave. It happens every time Mae, a recovering addict, finds herself around drugs. As a teenager, Mae had a serious drug problem—she got kicked out of her house, got arrested, dealt. Though she’s been sober for years, she’s always on the edge. When George inadvertently finds out about Mae’s drug history, Mae runs into the yard, lights a box of mementos on fire, comes back inside, and swears she’s got everything under control. “God, why do you have to be so intense!” George exclaims. “I am not. Intense,” Mae replies, tear tracks visible in the light layer of ash on her face, the garbage fire she set raging over her shoulder.

After this incident, Mae starts going to sitcommy NA meetings, which she dislikes. The various members—the leader who obsessively makes deviled eggs no one eats, a compulsive liar, a skeezy businessman, and the relentlessly overcaffeinated woman who becomes Mae’s sponsor—round out a cast that also includes Lisa Kudrow as Mae’s prickly but concerned mother. At the meetings, Mae starts to work up a theory of addiction, which is really a theory of her relationship: What if addicts, even when they’re not doing drugs, continue to single-mindedly and obsessively pursue behaviors, or people, that aren’t good for them? Basically, is George Mae’s new addiction?

At the start, this seems like a harsh question. It’s not like George is a knowingly cruel partner. She’s just closeted. She keeps Mae a secret from her posh, boorish friends and family, undermining Mae’s confidence all the while. Even after George comes out and publicly commits to Mae, Mae is convinced that George, in her heart of hearts, wants something more predictable, square, and straight and will, inevitably, end up with a man and a “normal” life, because that’s what she’s always imagined for herself. Their insecurities pogo off each other, George’s “I changed my whole life for you, and you’re all I have left, and somehow this isn’t enough” bouncing off Mae’s “I’m not really what you want, so of course there’s not enough!”

This makes it sound like Mae and George are on equal footing. But Feel Good knows relationships aren’t always a balanced equation. Mae can’t believe someone like George would give her the time of day. George can’t believe Mae can’t get over that. George is aggravated. Mae’s confidence is shredding. Mae may be the seasoned and experienced lover, but George is the one with the power. In one scene, shortly after coming out to her friends, a newly vulnerable George makes Mae swear she will never break up with her: Mae does it so convincingly that a relieved George falls asleep—before she can reassure Mae that she’ll never break up with her. Their baseline not-quite-equal power dynamic is once again restored.

Mae and George are like a vase with a hairline fracture. It works, but for the occasional drip and the fact that it might, at any minute, crack in half. Though aesthetically Feel Good is similar to the numerous personal, lo-fi comedies featuring stand-up comics and relationship gallows humor (Louie, Take My Wife, Catastrophe, One Mississippi), its clarity about everything that is wrong with its central relationship put me in mind of a bizarro rom-com like My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the right ending might not be the happy one—not that Feel Good has an ending, just a setup for Season 2. Maybe then Mae and George will work things out, or maybe they’ll figure out they aren’t supposed to. Don’t get me wrong—I’m rooting for them. They’re almost perfect for each other. But that almost is doing a lot of work.